Issue 10.2

The Death of Isaac

By DA Cairns

t2he stone gray sky mourned his awakening as Abraham pushed open the tent flap and stepped outside. He groaned inwardly as he stretched his back and looked to the majestic escarpment. Normally bathed in the warm glow of sunrise, it inspired him and encouraged him. Today, however, a silver fog bearded the mountain range while dense white clouds cascaded over its crown. Abraham sighed and scuffed the rocky ground with his sandaled foot. How he missed the oak groves of Mamre, the Hill country where he had pitched his tent for fifteen years among the tribes of the Amorites.

Mamre: where Yahweh had spoken to him, promising he and Sarah would, finally, after decades of heartache and broken dreams, have a child and this child would be the father of many nations. On feeling the light touch of Sarah’s hand on his arm, Abraham did not react. She had joined him outside the tent, moving quietly and gracefully to stand by his side to greet the new day as she did every day.

‘Yahweh mourns this day, my husband. He weeps in the colour of the sky. He is sad.’

Abraham turned his head towards the western sky where Nanna was falling with the rising of Utu. These were ancient reflections, habits he had never been able to shake. Though he knew the astral Deities of his forefathers, and his former life in the Chaldees, to be shadows of Yahweh, he could not help but worship them when he could see them, and the majestic trails they traced in the Heavens.

‘I have an urgent matter to attend to today.’

‘Urgent?’

‘Yahweh has spoken to me again.’

Sarah gasped. Yahweh and his messengers were benevolent but she nonetheless feared them and often wished they were more like the gods of the Babylonians who were completely disinterested in the affairs of men, and only inclined to action when they were angry, displeased with the sacrifices presented to them. An, Enil, Enki and Ninhursag. Sarah knew their names and despised them but at least their cruelty was predictable. This Yahweh was always surprising them and requiring outlandish acts of obedience like the relocation from Ur decades earlier. Eight hundred kilometers northwest along the Euphrates River to a foreign and inhospitable land. A place called Haran.

‘I must journey with Isaac to Mt. Moriah where I am to present a burnt offering to Yahweh, and worship him there.’

‘It is a long journey for you and the boy,’ said Sarah. She would rather have kept her son at home with her but she would not argue with Abraham. ‘When will you leave?’

Just then, two of Abraham’s servants approached. They were leading a donkey which had a large pair of baskets joined by a leather strap, draped across its back. One of the men was carrying an axe. Bowing their heads as they neared, they slowed and finally stopped.

‘How much wood do we need, Master?’

‘Fill the baskets if there is enough,’ replied Abraham, before turning to Sarah and saying, ‘it is a three day journey and we will leave this morning.’

‘Does Isaac know?’

‘My son will do as he is told to do.’

With that Abraham quickly entered the tent and gently roused Isaac from his slumber. He gazed on the angelic face of his twelve year old son and sighed.

‘Isaac,’ called Abraham. ‘Rise my son. We are to journey together to the Land of Moriah. Rise, eat and bid farewell to your mother. We will be gone for six days.’

The boy obeyed his father and prepared himself for the trip while Abraham supervised the loading of the wood and other provisions onto the donkey. He had chosen this particular beast for its unusual endurance and docility. While all asses were designed for hard work and did not tire easily, this was one exceptional. It would serve them well.

Sarah watched her husband work as she simultaneously fussed over Isaac.

‘Tell me the story mother.’

‘There is not time for that tale and you have already heard it so many times. Do you not grow weary of its retelling? Do you not know it by heart?’

‘Please, mother. There is time. Shorten it as you see fit.’

Sarah smiled at the boy. She had never been able to deny her only son anything, and so she began.

‘Your father was sitting at the entrance to the tent in the heat of the day. When he looked among the Terebrinth trees he saw three men approaching. He ran to greet them, fell to his knees and lowered his face to the ground. They accepted his offer of hospitality and he hastened away to get me to prepare some food for these mysterious guests. He gave them water and bid them sit and rest. Your father was surprised when one of the men asked him where I was, and used my name. His spirit quickened within him as he recognized these men as Yahweh’s messengers. Though he had not seen them before, somehow he knew them.

‘One of them told your father that he would return in one year and at that time I would bear a son.’

‘What did you do when you heard those words?’

‘I laughed.’

Isaac laughed. ‘You laughed at Yahweh’s servants, and denied it when they asked you why.’

Sarah smiled. ‘I was already an old woman, and your father too, almost one hundred years walking the earth. It seemed impossible. Ridiculous to think that I could have a child. I can still hardly believe it. You are our miracle, Isaac. The proof of the power of Yahweh, and the one through whom He will fufill His promise to your father, made forty years ago in Ur.’

The boy was too young to understand how he could be so important and Sarah could see the innocent ignorance in his eyes as he rose from the ground and bowed to her. He liked the story because his mother had laughed and then named him, Isaac which means “laughter.”

‘Go, my son,’ she said simply. ‘Your father awaits and is anxious to be on his way.’

‘Did he speak to you of the purpose of this journey?’

‘Only that he must go and worship Yahweh on Mt. Moriah. I think the significance of you being required to accompany him, should not be overlooked. Do you understand, my precious Isaac?’

‘Yes mother.’

 

Abraham’s  heart was heavy as he watched Isaac leave the tent and walk towards him. He had not told Sarah exactly what Yahweh had said. He had deliberately left out the part about presenting Isaac as a burnt offering. Thankfully Sarah had not asked from where he was to get an animal for the offering. Her curiosity had faded with the passage of the decades, and so had his. In its place, a resigned complacency had settled whereby they knew and accepted mystery without needing to, or even wanting to, understand it. They were secure in their unawareness. They also trusted each other to speak or not speak. To act or to remain passive. Love and dedication were fuelled by a passion undiminished by the years albeit expressed less exuberantly.

After a final inspection of the donkey load, Abraham gave the command for the party of four to begin the journey. Abraham preferred silence but Isaac was more garrulous due to his youth and the excitement of adventure.

‘Tell me the story of my cousin Lot.’

‘The night after the angels had visited us with news of your imminent conception your mother dreamt of Lot. It was a dark, ominous dream. She feared that he and his family may have been in some trouble. She said she saw them running from an unseen enemy, then they were frozen in time, like pillars of salt.

I told her that I had been anxious for them as well. I had heard some ill tidings from some of the Hittite traders. One of whom told me, as we completed our deal, that he had decided to bypass Sodom because of the increasing violence on the streets there. He said it was a city of wickedness beyond measure. He used the words filthy and depraved.’

‘Depraved and wicked?’ Isaac shuddered.

‘Evil, my son. Evil.’

Lot had chosen to move into the city for a reason known only to himself. From the fertile plains of the Jordan he had transferred his family and was, it appeared, in mortal danger. I feared for my nephew and family but felt impotent against such evil as was described in the hearts of the Sodomites. I wondered had Lot himself been corrupted? I had heard whispers of him being seen at the City Gate which was indicative of a possible leadership role. How enmeshed was he? Anxiety boiled in my veins.

The following day, around the midday heat, the three visitors appeared again. Once more, I greeted them properly and bid them rest, and prepared food and water for them, but they seemed to be in a hurry. They were polite yet obviously distracted so I asked what was troubling them.

One of them said that he had heard many complaints about the people of Sodom, and that they were going to investigate. I heard an edge to their voices as they explained that if they found Sodom to be a cesspool of obscenities, they would have to do something about it. The implication in those words was unmistakable and terrifying, and I felt compelled to do something, if only for the sake of my nephew and his family.

I ran after them and stood before them, hands clasped in supplication. I was trembling as I issued a challenge to their intended carnage. I knew that Sodom was overrun by wickedness but I reasoned that not all of its inhabitants could have been worthy of death.

‘Are you going,’ I said to them, trying to control the shakiness in my voice, ‘to destroy the good people along with the bad people? What if there are fifty decent people in Sodom, will you still annihilate them all?’

Yahweh himself answered me and said that if there were fifty righteous men in Sodom he would save the city. I pressed him further and asked what he would do if he found forty righteous men in Sodom. He replied that for the sake of forty he would not destroy it. Foolishly, I continued to bargain with the Almighty, and asked if he would restrain the extermination if there were just ten righteous citizens of Sodom. Without displaying the faintest trace of annoyance at my impertinence, Yahweh said that if there were ten righteous people in Sodom he would repent, and leave them be but, he said, but my child Abraham, there are no righteous citizens there. Not one. They have all turned away from decency and goodness. They have become like beasts following whatever vile impulses and wanton lusts come upon them. They are lost by their own choosing, and I cannot tolerate them any longer. That is what he told me and I was sickened and shocked. So much so that I crumpled to the dirty ground like a tent without poles.

Isaac had heard the story before, but just as Sarah’s story about laughing at Yahweh’s messengers always made him laugh, so this story of the merciless obliteration of Sodom never ceased to grieve him. Abraham knew this and they had discussed it many times. He had continued to impress upon Isaac’s young mind the need to trust and obey Yahweh, regardless of how he might feel.  Did the story of Sodom prove that Yahweh was cruel? Then what of His kindness in granting them a miracle child? Isaac still wanted answers. He still believed that there were answers for all the questions he could ever think of, and he invariably expected Abraham to provide those answers. Abraham knew how frustrated Isaac felt when his only answer was that he didn’t know, or that he didn’t understand. Abraham had never lied to his son, never pretended that he was omnipotent or omniscient. Life was characterized by suffering, and the sooner the boy understood and accepted that fact, the better off he would be.

It was at this point that Abraham’s mind disengaged from the present. He continued walking on autopilot, satisfied that Isaac would remain quiet for some time as he again contemplated the ramifications of Sodom’s destruction. Abraham was considering the command of Yahweh to go to Mt. Moriah and to present Isaac as a burnt offering. He had heard of such practices in Babylon and Mesopotamia but he knew that most people considered human sacrifice, especially of children, abhorrent. Why would Yahweh command him to sacrifice his son? And why, of all his many sons, Isaac? His beloved, the child of the promise. The more he thought about it the more he became convinced that he had misheard. But pondering Sodom clouded the issue. If Yahweh was not concerned for the hundreds who lived in Sodom, why should he care about one child? His feet felt leaden, and he suddenly stumbled and landed on the ground with a grunt.

‘Father,’ cried Isaac, kneeling beside him. ‘Father, what’s wrong?’

‘Sometimes I think I have lived too long.’

‘Nonsense,’ said Isaac dismissively. ‘Rise and let us continue our journey to Mt.Moriah. Yahweh has called us, so we must go. He will strengthen our legs and our resolve for his glory.’

Is it glory, thought Abraham as he struggled to his feet with Isaac’s assistance, for this God to want your death at my hand? Why? If His desire is to examine my faith then why not some other way, and have I not already proved myself over and over again? Abraham was complaining bitterly but thankful at least, for having sufficient control to contain his rambling inside his head. He knew, of course, instinctively, that there would not be, could not be, a greater test of obedience than to surrender the thing he most loved in all the world, his precious son. Somewhere in his mind, logic was prevailing against the tide of stormy emotion: resentment. If Yahweh was merely applying a trial with his command to sacrifice Isaac then perhaps he would repent at the last minute, or soon. At some point in this journey, he would speak once more and commend Abraham on his submission, then send him back to Gerar. Yahweh could change his mind. Just because he did not repent from the massacre of Sodomites, did not mean that he would not repent on this occasion. There was still hope. There was always hope. There was only hope.

‘Come father,’ urged Isaac, ‘You appear as an old man yet you are still young and strong. Take some water and let us continue.’

Abraham drank from the bronze horned vessel that Isaac handed him, then poured a little of the cool water on his head. He was aware of the two young servants standing by, watching pensively to see if he would be able to continue. The donkey brayed impatiently. Even the ashen sky seemed to hold its breath until finally, Abraham placed his hand firmly on Isaac’s shoulder and nodded. Although undecided with respect to the dilemma he faced, Abraham determined to forge ahead and allow events to unfold as Yahweh ordained them. The days and nights which followed were peaceful, and with favourable weather conditions the four made good progress towards Moriah.

 

On the third day, Abraham looked and saw the place in the distance. Without being specific, Yahweh had told him he would know the place when he saw it, and this was confirmed now. It was further evidence of Yahweh’s faithfulness yet also another nail in the coffin of Abraham’s hopes that He would change his mind about Isaac. In fact, Abraham was now convinced that Yahweh would actually require him to murder his son.

Leaving the donkey with the two servants, Abraham told them that he and Isaac were going further on to worship Yahweh, and then they would return. He pronounced the words from an arid throat but did not believe them.

‘Gather a load of wood, Isaac and carry it on your back. I have the flint to start fire and a knife for the sacrifice. Let us go.’

‘But Father,’ said Isaac, ‘where is the sheep for the burnt offering?’

Abraham realized this was probably a question which Isaac had wanted to ask many times during their journey but had thought better of it, preferring to trust his father implicitly. Now, however, as they were so close, he could restrain himself no longer.

‘We have all we need, except the actual animal to sacrifice.’

Not knowing what to say, Abraham opted for silence and merely gestured for Isaac to do what he had been told to do. He wondered if he should share his heart with his son, or continue to try to protect him from the ugly, fatal truth. He wondered if he had the courage to do what was required of him. An eruption of pain burst inside his temple and he automatically reached for it, to sooth it, to fix it. Isaac’s back was turned to him so he did not notice the latest physical assault against his father. Abraham fought hard against his feelings, the strength of which threatened to overwhelm him at any moment. A tsunami of doubt rolled over him and he tripped on some loose stones. Somehow managing to keep his feet, he waved away Isaac’s look of concern and they continued walking: together but each alone with his own thoughts.

‘Here, my son. Lay down your load and let us build an altar.’ He looked around. ‘There should be enough stones here to build a low platform.’

Abraham watched his son carefully. As there was still no sign of a sheep, no miraculous appearance of any beast for the offering, Isaac hesitated. He probably felt guilty for being disobedient, and for doubting but was powerless to help it. Abraham knew the brute force of emotion. The battlefield between emotion and will was littered with the corpses of good intentions. He decided there was nothing for it but to carry on the work, so he selected a large base stone and laid it down. Then he found another and laid it on top. Soon Isaac joined his labour and in no time they had constructed a crude altar. Taking wood from the bundle Isaac had toted, Abraham began to lay out the pieces in an orderly fashion, alternating larger branches with smaller twigs for kindling so that the fire would start easily and burn well.

‘Father?’

Abraham straightened and gazed into his son’s eyes. Tears burned his own eyes and blurred his vision. When he attempted to speak, he coughed the word, Yahweh, out of his mouth like a curse. Not good enough, he told himself.

‘Yahweh himself will provide a sheep for the offering,’ he said before immediately averting Isaac’s eyes. ‘Continue. We must finish.’

Once the altar was complete, Abraham stood and stared at it. Isaac, although bemused, participated in this strange, previously unheard part of the ritual. After several long minutes, Abraham called Isaac to him.

‘Isaac. Come let me bind your hands and feet.’

‘Father?’

‘I will tie your hands and feet then lay you on the altar.’

‘Why?’

The pent up confusion and rage he felt towards Yahweh exploded from Abraham’s lips. ‘Do as I tell you Isaac,’ he ordered, then cringed inwardly as he witnessed his son wilt in front of him. It was possible, until that moment, Isaac had thought his father was joking. Abraham quite clearly demonstrated the error of that thinking. He approached Isaac holding the cords with which he intended to bind him. Isaac remained motionless and silent. When Abraham took hold of Isaac’s hand, he shook free of his father’s grip.

‘No father.’

Abraham tried again and this time Isaac pushed him. Suddenly Abraham felt the volcano inside him, and he shouted for Isaac to submit.

‘No father. I will not be your sacrifice to Yahweh. Have you lost your mind?’

Abraham stepped close to Isaac and grasped his son by the shoulders. Isaac grabbed a handful of Abraham’s tunic and the two were thus locked in a stalemate. Though still a child, Isaac was able to match Abrahams’ strength long enough for his father’s endurance to weaken. They glared at each other as though the intensity of their eye contact could win the struggle for them. Abraham had no passion for this fight though. Surely his son was right when he suggested that he had lost his mind. He loved Isaac and could not deliberately harm him let alone draw the blade of a knife across his throat to drain him of life. Finally, Abraham released him before slumping to the ground: abject, defeated.

He could feel the heat of Isaac’s shock and simmering anger. Abraham kept his face to the ground. Mortified.  No words were spoken. Failure. He had not wanted to kill Isaac and consequently had not tried to. Isaac had disobeyed him for the first time in his short life. Defiant to the point of violence. A primal scream of resistance into the face of authority.

When Isaac turned and trudged away, Abraham rose from the dirt and dusted himself off. After waiting a few minutes, he followed until he reached the place where he had left his two servants with the donkey. Isaac had walked past them apparently without offering any explanation.

‘Did Isaac speak?’

The two young men shook their heads simultaneously.

‘Go and collect the wood from the altar, bundle it and load it onto the donkey’s back. We are going back to Gerar.’

 

Later that day, Abraham saw Isaac walking ahead in the distance. Thankfully he had a good sense of direction, and he also appeared strong which heartened Abraham. Before too long he hoped to have the opportunity to explain to Isaac what had happened, to try to justify what he did. He was a smart child, and would understand and in time, he hoped, forgive the wrong done to him. On the other hand, Abraham hoped not to speak with Yahweh, who he knew must be angry with both of them. Abraham’s greater concern was with the welfare of his son. Looking again, he could no longer see him and he knew the boy should eat and rest.

Addressing one of his servants, Abraham said, ‘Hurry ahead and catch up with Isaac. Ask him to stop and rest with us. Ask him, don’t tell him. Ask him to eat with us tonight and suggest he will be free to walk alone again on the morrow, if he wishes.’

While the servant raced off in pursuit of Isaac, the other man helped Abraham make camp. Before they had finished however, the servant returned with his chest heaving, and barely able to talk.

‘Where is Isaac?’ asked Abraham.

‘He has fallen and is injured.’

‘Why didn’t you bring him here?’ Abraham was too frantic to wait for an answer. He said to the other servant. ‘Go with him and bring Isaac to me now.’

Abraham used the unbearably anxious wait to beseech Yahweh, to beg his intervention, to save his boy. There was no time for apologies, no time for remorse. His son was hurt but he did not know how seriously. Surely, the Almighty would be merciful. Abraham wept hot tears as he waited in the fading light of dusk.

 

By the time the servants returned to camp, night had fallen so their approach was obscured. They came quietly and laid Isaac down beside the fire. Abraham was by his side in an instant cradling his unconscious son, weeping prayers, oozing misery.

‘Master,’ said one of the servants softly. ‘The boy has bled profusely from a head wound. He has shown no sign of life since we reached him until now. I’m sorry, master. He is dead.’

Abraham moaned as he tightly hugged the limp, lifeless body of his beloved son.

 

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Heavy metal lover and cricket tragic, DA Cairns lives in Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory, where he works as an English language teacher and writes stories in his very limited spare time. He has had over 50 short stories published (but who’s counting right?) He blogs at Square pegs http://dacairns.blogspot.com.au and has authored four novels, Devolution, Loathe Your Neighbor, Ashmore Grief, and A Muddy Red River which is available now from Rogue Phoenix Press.